Depth of Field

So why the heck do photography terms sound so complicated? Considering photography is basically an art form, why is the language so darn scientific? Depth of Field? What does that mean and why is it relevant within the world of sports photography? Well I am here to demystify all the pomp and clutter and cut through all the confusing terminology.

Depth of Field is just a fancy way of describing what is in focus in your photo. Is your range of focus shallow or deep? Here is a simple exercise to help explain this concept. Hold your hand up in front of your face, close one eye and now focus on the details of your hand. Do you notice that once you focus on your hand that everything in the background goes out of focus? Now leave your hand there, leave one eye closed, and focus on the background. Notice how your hand is now out of focus? The term depth of field is simply the art of controlling how much of your photo is in focus.  Every time you shoot a photo, you have the ability to control which subjects are in focus and which things are out of focus. If you took a photo of your hand, you have the ability to put your hand in focus and let the background go soft (blurry) or keep them both in sharp focus depending on how you set your aperture.

Let me show you this concept in a sports photography context. So let's say you are photographing a football game. You are on the sidelines and the team with the ball sets up on the line of scrimmage directly in front of you. The center has the ball and is the mid point in the string of offensive linemen. By controlling the depth of field, you have the ability to control how many of those linemen are in focus for this photo. You can choose to have only the center and the football in focus and the players in the foreground and background out of focus. That would be called short or shallow depth of field. Or, you also have the ability to put all of the linemen in focus - that is called deep depth of field and your focal range is stretching further or deeper.

So why is Depth of Field so crucial for sports photography? One of the key elements of a great sports photo is isolation and the nature of a sporting event is cluttered. In the background of any given sports photo, you have the opposite sideline, bleachers full of fans, cars in a parking lot, fences, etc. That clutter makes for a photo that lacks a central point of focus. Take a look at the sports section today and look through some of the action photos. You will notice that in most cases, the photographer has intentionally used a short depth of field to blur the background so that the subject of the photo seems to jump off the page. The good news is that it is not hard to accomplish. You just need to know how to control depth of field to your advantage.

So the next question is, where do I find the depth of field button on my camera? Actually, there isn't one. Depth of field is controlled by your aperture or f-stop settings. Here is a simple breakdown. The wider the aperture or the smaller the f-stop number, the shorter the depth of field. So using our football example again, to isolate the center, you would need a short depth of field. F2.8 or F4. On the other extreme, to get all the linemen in focus, you would need a smaller aperture or a larger f-stop number. F16 or F22. There are times when you may want a deep depth of field but in most cases, as a sports photographer, you are always trying to keep your aperture wide open. Sports photographers will open up as wide as possible (f2.8 or f4) and raise the shutter speed. So on a bright day, it would not be uncommon for a sports photographer to be shooting at f2.8 at 200ISO and a shutter speed of 1/4000. Fast shutter to freeze the action, wide-open aperture to create short depth of field and an ISO to match the amount of light outside. Check out my series of 4 articles about the Big Three camera settings to review how these settings work together.

You can also check out my article about Buying a Lens, and you can see why photographers pay more to get those 2.8 lenses. Short depth of field is a big part of a great sports photo and controlling that is why you ultimately need to learn how to control your camera rather than relying on a fully automatic mode. Now there is one more dimension to depth of field and that depends on how long your reach is or how long your lens is. If I was photographing the action of a game with a 50mm lens, I would find it hard to be precise with my depth of field because the wider the lens, the more that is in focus. However on the flip side, if I were using a 200mm or 300mm lens, I would find it a lot easier to shorten that depth of field (another reason why sports photographers like the longer lenses).

Play with some different settings this weekend and see if you can use depth of field to your advantage.

Have a blast!

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Scott Quintard is a professional photographer based in southern California and a 25 year sports photography veteran who specializes in teaching parents and aspiring photographers about how to capture sports imagery. Credits include 12 years as the official team photographer for the UCLA Bruins and a seasoned contributor for NFL Properties, MLB, NBA and NCAA. Scott is a husband and father of three young athletes. See more of Scott's offerings at

Release Date: Jul 21 2014

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